Beavers, fevers, freezes, and worse. Thank goodness for the River Angels.
Hard to believe it’s already been a month since bilateral amputee Nate Denofre and disabled vet Don Jokinen embarked on their summer-long canoe trip down the Mississippi. We’ve been keeping tabs on this project (aka Paddling to Persevere) pretty routinely via the Facebook page and the live tracker, which had the fellas camping last night just above Brainerd MN. That’s about 250 miles downstream of the headwaters, give or take. Only about 2,000 miles left.
If the rest of the trip is as eventful as the first month, there may not be much left of our intrepid boaters by the time they get to New Orleans. True to the name of the project, Denofre and Jokinen have had their perseverance tested repeatedly, beginning on Day 1. They spent the first week scrapping and clawing for every mile. More recently, an unfortunate insect encounter necessitated a trip to the ER and briefly threatened the entire venture.
There’s also been plenty of great weather, gorgeous scenery, and the kind of peace you can only find in the wilderness. Supporters (aka “River Angels”) have been out in force, waving from the bridges and banks, sharing hot meals, pitching in with laundry and resupply, and occasionally paddling alongside for a segment or two. The good times on the water have far outweighed the bad. But rewards always come at a cost, and the dudes have paid full price so far. Besides, if we know Nate Denofre, he’d lose interest pretty fast if there wasn’t some adversity to overcome. The path of least resistance ain’t what floats this guy’s boat.
Before we continue: If you haven’t made a contribution yet, please chip in what you can. The funds support Courage Incorporated’s wilderness camping trips for amputees, disabled veterans, wheelchair users, and other folks who don’t get too many opportunities to enjoy the backcountry.
Here, listed in reverse order, are the biggest obstacles the river has thrown in the crew’s way so far.
#4: Mississippi Shivers
The expedition launched on May 9 in 20something-degree temperatures—and then it got colder. Half a day into the voyage, Denofre’s business partner Erik Conradson posted this update on Facebook: “They are roughly 2 miles into the trip and [Nate] assures me that it was a long 2 miles! They’ve been on the river for a little over 5 hours and are very cold, very wet. Lots of mud and muck. Lots of low areas that required them to get out and push.”
It got bad enough at midafternoon that they had to pull off and build a fire to restore feeling to their fingers before they could resume paddling. Temps thawed out for a few days, but Day 5 brought more cold, more rain, and more misery. Here’s how Christa Denofre, Nate’s wife and the expedition’s publicist/nurse/chief logistics officer, summed things up: “Nobody said life was easy. If you ever question about what this paddling initiative is about, here it is….Two men, both with physical disabilities, hell-bent on showing people that life is good. Even when you fall, even when there is pain, even when the struggle may never seem to end—you must keep pushing forward. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Don’t be afraid to take somebody’s hand. Don’t be afraid to challenge yourself. You’ll be surprised at what you really are capable of.”
#3: Voyage of the Dammed
The Army Corps of Engineers operates roughly 30 dams on the Mississippi, the first of which comes at Lake Winnibigoshish, roughly 110 miles down from the headwaters. Above that point, all the dams are engineered by beavers. And they’re busy.
You can portage around some of these obstructions, or maybe slide the boats over them. But where the river’s too narrow and the beavers are too thorough, you have no choice but to stand upstream of the barrier in thigh-deep water and chop your way through with an axe and a hacksaw, stick by stick. It’s as much fun as it sounds.
On the day this picture was taken, the canoes advanced about three miles total. Thanks a lot, Beaver Corps.
#2: Low Down and Dirty
With all the snow and rain, you would think that at least the river’s nice and high and the current’s perking along….and you’d be wrong. The water level on the upper Mississippi appears to be two or three feet below normal, and that’s caused all manner of inconveniences and aggravations, especially in the last 10 days or so. Chief among these: a thick layer of muck that’s well below the surface at normal flow volumes, but which now looms as an oozy barrier between the river and the truly dry land. Several times the crew has had to drag the boats through this sludge while leaving the river or getting back on it, leaving them filthy and fragrant when setting up camp in the evening and shoving off the next morning. The low water also has rendered some of the more favorable camping spots completely inaccessible—the banks are just too steep and slippery.
#1: Ticked Off
On May 27, Denofre became violently ill—horrible GI distress, body aches, vomiting, the works. Christa, his wife, recognized the fatigue and joint pain as being consistent with Lyme disease, a tick-borne illness that can turn deadly if not treated immediately. “I examined him and found a bull’s-eye on his right hip,” Christa says. “We had a supply of [the antibiotic] doxycycline with us just in case of that, but he could not have kept it down with the vomiting.”
Fortunately they were very close to Grand Rapids, Minnesota, a good-sized town with a hospital. Within a few hours they were at the emergency room, and a few hours after that Denofre was discharged with a supply of antibiotics. On a different night, at a different point along the river, things might have taken a more serious turn. As it turned out, they were back on the river the next day.
“The other night I was a little sick,” Denofre explained with considerable understatement in a subsequent video. “But everything’s cool. I was just a little dehydrated, overheated, and they think I had too many ticks on me. So I got some medicine from my doctor. I feel great, we’re not stopping. We never do.”
Indeed. We’ll post another update here in a few weeks. For those of you who are captivated (as we are), daily updates are available at the P2P webpage, and there are lots of videos and photos at the P2P Facebook page. (And don’t forget to support the cause!)